Science and Charity, Strange New Bedfellows

Back to the Future
The “Make Poverty History” coalition was launched in 2005 with the words of Nelson Mandela, who, addressing over 20,000 people in Trafalgar Square said: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”1 In the forward to Jeffrey Sachs’s 2005 New York Times Bestseller The End of Poverty, Bono, U2’s frontman rocker and founder of “The One Campaign”, a global initiative to end world poverty, writes about how Sachs’s work presents a radical new paradigm-shifting idea: that it is within the grasp of the current generation to “finish out the job” of eliminating poverty. Bono writes of the excitement of being “the first generation to outlaw the kind of extreme, stupid poverty that sees a child die of hunger in a world of plenty, or of a disease preventable by a twenty-cent inoculation.” … “The first generation that can end a corrupt relationship between the powerful and the weaker parts of the world which has been so wrong for so long.” … “We can be the generation that no longer accepts that an accident of latitude determines whether a child lives or dies…”2 During an October 1, 2013 address Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the largest global multilateral development organization, the World Bank, laid out what pundits called a bold new plan of action: “The fact that more than a billion people live on less than $1.25 a day in 2013 is a stain on our moral conscience. We must help lift people out of poverty without delay, without prejudice, no matter the circumstance, no matter the locale.”3

The June 1st – 7th 2013 edition of The Economist magazine sports a cover that reads: Towards the End of Poverty. Inside, an article entitled “Not always with us”, reports that current progress in the fight to end poverty is in reach in our lifetimes because our understanding of poverty, as a social problem, has been transformed: Thanks partly to new technology, the poor are no longer an undifferentiated mass. Identification schemes are becoming large enough – India has issued hundreds of millions of biometric smart cards – that countries are coming to know their poor literally by name. This, in turn, enables social programmes to be better targeted, studied and improved. … Poverty used to be a reflection of scarcity. Now it is a problem of identification, targeting and distribution. And that is a problem that can be solved.

At first glance there might not seem to be anything odd at all to these claims to “our generation’s” ability to use science to end social ills, until one stops to remember that these same claims were made by 19th century reformers and social scientists who worked, as one 19th century social scientist said: to “…seek out, analyze, classify, and record a vast number of facts regarding the poor and poor-relief” since it was…

Stay tuned for more in my next post…

1. BBC News, “In Full: Mandela’s Poverty Speech”, BBC (accessed May 23 2009).
2. Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (New York: Penguin Books, 2006). P. xiv
3.Global poverty measurement is nothing if not controversial. Economists from both the right and left have continuously challenged the Bank’s income-based calculations. From the right, economists like Xavier Sala- i-Martin of Colombia University and Maxim Pinkovskiy of MIT have argued that the Bank’s estimates are significantly overstated, which would mean that the effects of globalisation are even better for the world than the Bank itself realizes. From the left the economist-philosopher duo Sanjay Reddy and Thomas Pogge have argued that the Bank methodology is unreliable and as such under-estimates global poverty by up to 40 percent. One can follow these debates on blogs such as, where the authors state that China alone accounts for the numbers being hailed by the Bank, while the number of people living below the $1.25 a day line outside of Chica actually rose by 13 million between 1981 and 2008, and that a more accurate headline would have read:
“Numbers in poverty plunge in China over the past three decades f om 1981-2008, while rising marginally in the rest of the world.”The Economist, June 1 – 7, 2013 2013.